Monday, February 9, 2015

Using Gender-Neutral Language for God

This month I am preaching each Sunday at the Rosedale Congregational United Church of Christ. The title of my sermon yesterday was “Good News of the Kingdom,” from Mark 1:15.
Updated terminology. In the first part of the sermon I had to take time to talk about terminology. The UCC does not usually refer to God with gender-specific words: as a rule, they do not call God “Father” or use masculine nouns in referring to God. I don’t have any trouble with that, for I adopted that same general approach years ago.
In addition, the UCC doesn’t like to talk about the Kingdom of God—for that implies there is a king, and we all know that kings are male. So the preferred term is “realm of God.” A section in “The New Century Hymnal,” the UCC hymn book published in 1995, is titled “Realm of God.”
While I see the point in that new wording and appreciate the consistency of it, I have had some trouble making that shift in terminology. Maybe “kingdom” doesn’t always mean there is a male monarch—it certainly doesn’t for the United Kingdom where Queen Elizabeth has been the monarch for more than 60 years.
Updated hymn. For the service yesterday, I chose the closing hymn from the “Peace and Justice” section. The title is “Lead On Eternal Sovereign,” and the words are attributed to Ernest Shurtleff. But the hymn that he wrote to be sung at the graduation service of Andover Seminary in 1888 began, “Lead on, O King eternal.”
Even though Shurtleff’s name appears at the bottom of the page, there are few words that are the same as those he wrote. Not only is gender specific language not used, military images have also been changed—for which I am grateful. The result is a fine hymn, but it is not really the same as what the author wrote.
Here are the words of the third verse to the updated hymn:
Lead on eternal Sovereign, till sin’s fierce war shall cease
    and all your saints together will sing a hymn of peace;
Then all in your dominion will live with hearts set free,
    to love and serve each other for all eternity.

Updated Lord’s Prayer. There are three versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the UCC hymnal. I was surprised to see that all three begin, “Our Father,” and all three use the word “kingdom.” So to be consistent, I thought there ought to be an alternative version without gender-specific language.
My Google search failed to find anything suitable, so I decided to write a paraphrased version myself. Here is what I came up with:
Creator God, Redeemer and Sustainer of all that is,
May your Reality be honored by us and by all creation.
May your will be done on earth as it is in your Eternal Realm.
Give us the food we need for our sustenance today.
Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from times of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the glory and power of the Eternal Realm is yours forever.
Amen.
So, what do you think? Is it necessary to use gender-neutral language for God and for “his kingdom” as well as for the Lord’s Prayer? And if that is desirable for the latter, is the version I came up with satisfactory, or are there places that need to be changed and improved?

23 comments:

  1. Excellent thoughts, Leroy. I have spent the last several years training myself to adopt new language for God in light of the connection between masculine pronouns and the promotion of an oppressive patriarchal culture. I prefer to think of the word "God" itself as a pronoun, since "God" is not God's name, but a euphemism or linguistic placeholder to denote the divine name (YHWH, perhaps?). Thus "God loves God's people" is the same as saying "He loves his people," albeit with a different, gender-inclusive pronoun.

    I have also thought a lot about the word "Kingdom". There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Greek word "Basileia" in the academic community, and a number of different options have been suggested. The word "Kingdom" has two different connotations to consider: 1) A spacial dimension with geographical borders (the "United Kingdom"), and 2) A political state of rulership (the Kingdom or "Queendom" of Queen Elizabeth). Some people translate "Basileia" as "Reign," but that does away with the spacial dimension of Kingdom, thus undercutting any physically or geographically tangible Basileia tou Theou (Kingdom of God). Some prefer to leave the word untranslated, but I don't think that makes a whole lot of sense, either. Our friend Mark Buhlig prefers the "Dream of God," but "Dream" has just as many negative connotations as positive ones (i.e. something that is a dream is usually "just a dream" and not connected to physical reality). It seems to me that "realm" is pretty close, but leans more toward the spacial dimension as opposed to the rulership dimension. Personally, the gender-inclusive noun I prefer when speaking of the state of Christ's authority over the Church and the eschatological community of God is the "Dominion" of God. It's not perfect, but the word "Dominion" holds the two connotations of "Kingdom" together nicely.

    Most gender-neutral paraphrases of the Lord's Prayer are a little too "hippie-dippy" for me. Call me old-fashioned, but I just prefer the original, especially in the context of corporate worship. There is something about the tradition of saying the Lord's Prayer aloud in church that makes me feel connected to centuries--millennia, even--of Christians who came before us. The liturgy is one of the few possessions of the universal Church that functions in that capacity. We don't have to pretend that Jesus didn't call God "Father". As a matter of fact, Sarah Coakley (perhaps one of the best systematic theologians alive today) still uses the masculine terms for the Trinity (though I can't remember exactly why--I'm in the middle of the first volume of her excellent systematic theology, "God, Sexuality, and Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity,'" right now). By contrast, as a final note, I would like to mention that I am in agreement with Dr. Molly Marshall's reluctance to refer to the Spirit with feminine pronouns as it has become popular to do in recent years. Marshall's argument is that using gendered terms to refer to the Holy Spirit opens the door to gendered terminology for the other two persons of the Trinity.

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    1. Joshua, thanks so much for responding early and deeply; your comments are helpful for the discussion.

      I agree with your criticism of "most gender-neutral paraphrases of the Lord's Prayer," but I trust you didn't think my paraphrase was also a little too "hippie-dippy."

      I partly agree with Dr. Marshall: I don't think gender-specific language should be used for the Creator God or the Holy Spirit. But I do not see the point, or the validity, of not using male language with to Jesus--although perhaps that should be done with reference to the Christ. Jesus' maleness was a part of his historicity the same as his Jewishness or his living in the first century C.E.

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    2. Thanks for responding to my comment, Leroy. I don't think your version of the prayer is too hippy-dippy. I don't think there is necessarily anything inherently wrong with adjusting the Lord's Prayer to be gender-inclusive. But often, would-be editors get carried away and turn the prayer into a super New Age-y meditation, air-brushing over any part of the prayer with potential to make the Modern reader uncomfortable. I've seen some doozies that are so "modernized" that the skeletal framework of the prayer that once was is no longer intelligible.

      I should clarify my comment about Dr. Marshall: She certainly doesn't deny the maleness of Jesus. That would be kind of silly (although, on Jesus' noticeable incongruity with ancient expectations of masculinity, see Brittany E. Wilson's forthcoming monograph, Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts, due out from Oxford University Press this coming May). Dr. Marshall's main argument is that we shouldn't understand the Spirit as female for the specific reason that it leaves room for configuring God-the-Father as male, a configuration which in turn is susceptible to a whole host of other problems.

      I was so glad to see Kate Hanch's comments below. I am a great admirer of hers, and I think that her voice as an emerging theologian is an important one. We briefly blogged together at the blogging community of Near Emmaus, which ceased publication last year.

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    3. Thanks for your commenting further, Joshua.

      When you said that Dr. Marshall's "argument is that using gendered terms to refer to the Holy Spirit opens the door to gendered terminology for the other two persons of the Trinity," it made me wonder if she tried not to use gender-specific language for Jesus; some feminist theologians do. (Perhaps you have seen the sculpture of "Christa" a female form dying on a cross.)

      Perhaps talk about the Eternal Christ or the Cosmic Christ can and should be done in gender-neutral language--and Dr. Marshall may have that in mind. But it seems to me that Jesus' maleness if a part of the historical specificity in the same way that his being a Jew living in the first century C.E. is historically specific and an unavoidable part of "the scandal of particularity."

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  2. Thanks, Leroy, for your thoughts, your inclusiveness. Sadly, when women talk about sexism, we see how others strain to look at us politely, but we know they are dismissing us as whiners. There are tell-tale signs before the conversation gets changed to something else. I thank you for lending your male credibility to this cause.

    Thank you also for your rethinking of the Lord's Prayer. I generally say "Our Creator" or "Mysterious God" when it is said in church. Or I am silent as others speak and I mumble something in my head -- an apology of sorts.

    In your version I miss the rhythm of original, but I have enough issues with the maleness of the original text that I would sacrifice rhythm for a sense of inclusion. I think I could grow accustomed to a new rhythm. Just thinking "aloud," here.

    As Joshua notes, the Lord's prayer ties together centuries, even millennia, of tradition, but that tradition also includes a lot of violence. For women who have experienced violence at the hands of a man, or narrowly escaped it, a cloud can hang over the Lord's prayer making it more alienating than it is connecting. How connected do I feel, or want to feel, to a tradition in which, for millennia, men have claimed lordship over women in the name of God, presumably at God's behest, and for millennia it may continue, for sentimental reasons. "Our father, hallowed be the male dominion symboled in your name." The rhythm almost works.

    Some additional heretical thoughts: I think about the Aramaic word that Jesus used with God in prayer, Abba. I wonder if sometimes he wasn't saying "Amma" but the people who were around him heard Abba. It was radical enough to be so familiar with the divine. Taking another step would just be too much for first-century listeners. Nevertheless, the two words sound an awful lot alike.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Debra. It is very important to have women's views on this subject, and I hope you have also read Deborah's and Kate's comments below.

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  3. More Americanism Christianity.

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    1. Real courageous of you to post vague critical comments behind the veil of anonymity.

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    2. Amen to Smith's reply, and why I never, ever reply to Anonymous.

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    3. I don't usually reply to anonymous comments either, but I would like to point out to Anonymous and others that gender-neutral language for God was very much an issue with which Christians in Japan had to wrestle also, for there were Japanese Christian women who had strong objections to calling God "Father."

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  4. Enjoyed your refreshing thoughts on this, Debra!

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  5. Thanks, Leroy, for a marvelous blog that shares your ongoing attempts to be inclusive. I have some criticisms of the UCC's New Century Hymnal that are peculiar to the demography of the UCC and that I won't go into here. (I myself am a UCC clergyman.) And you and I had a few exchanges about your new Lord's Prayer, so you already know some of my thoughts about that that are a little different from yours. But the challenging work of being inclusive is something we all need to commit ourselves to, however difficult or clumsy or wrong we get it at times. And so I applaud you.

    I would add that, even though I'm already UCC, you've worked harder at inclusiveness than I, which embarrasses me. :-)

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  6. Local Thinking Friend Mark Buhlig, who is mentioned in Joshua's comments above, shares these comments:

    "I rarely use the phrase, Kingdom of God. I have moved away from this terminology, not because of the gender implied, in my experience I have known both men and women to be capable of being autocratic and dictatorial. Rather, it is the implications associated with the language of Kings and Queens that presses me.

    A Kingdom implies that territory has been taken by force. I don't believe that taking by force is at all in keeping with the will of God.

    A common response from others to my shift of language goes something like this: 'Oh, I agree with you, but that is the language of the Bible...' If one believes the Bible to be that which we conform our beliefs to, that is a fine answer. If, however, one believes the Bible, with its inspiration as well as its infusion of humanity informs our faith, that gives one latitude to make theological adjustments. Adjustments such as changing our language from 'The Kingdom of God' to 'The Dream of God.'"

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  7. Local Thinking Friend Joe Barbour, who is also a former fellow Southern Baptist missionary, makes the following comment:

    "To be gender neutral is straining the gnat and swallowing the camel. Jesus had no problem with calling God Father, Neither should we."

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  8. Thinking Friend Deborah Sokolove, who has a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from Drew University and is Associate Professor of Art and Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., sent these thought comments:

    "I am delighted to know that you are thinking serious about gender-neutral language for God. Too often, I have noted to my dismay, even in some otherwise progressive churches, God-language in worship is overwhelmingly masculine.

    "However, there is more that can (and many would argue, should) be done beyond simply de-gendering God. As Marjory Proctor-Smith pointed out in her excellent (and challenging!) volume on feminist liturgical practice, "In Her Own Rite," non-sexist language is only a beginning.

    "She goes on to describe inclusive language, which deliberately uses both masculine and feminine images and metaphors; and emancipatory language, which undercuts our habitual mental constructs of what it means to be masculine or feminine by providing new and surprising metaphors.

    "One example of such emancipatory language is in Brian Wren's hymn, 'Bring Many Names,' which is to be found in the UCC hymnal (as well as others).

    "Alas, I don't have a good answer for your question about the Lord's Prayer, other than to say that even some of my most radical feminist friends say that it is best to emend our Christian tradition with the writing end of the pencil, rather than the eraser.

    "There is something deep and wonderful about what we pray by heart, as long as we add new prayers and words into our hearts, as well. I'm willing to say 'kingdom' in the Lord's Prayer, but I address it to 'father-mother God'. Or, when I remember to do so, simply to Holy One, which is also my go-to substitute for Lord."

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    1. I appreciate these thoughtful comments by Dr. Sokolove, and I am glad to have the opportunity to recommend the book that she co-authored (with Peter Bankson). The title is "Calling on God: Inclusive Christian Prayers for Three Years of Sundays"(2014).

      Deborah and Peter are members of Seekers Church, just across the northeast boundry of D.C. in Takoma, Maryland. My son Keith and his wife have been members of that same church, a spin-off of the well-known Church of the Savior, for many years.

      I was happy to receive a copy of the book, signed by the authors, as a Christmas present from Keith.

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    2. I just received word from Dr. Sokolove that last October she was promoted to full Professor.

      I was glad to learn of her promotion, and I apologize for not having the correct information in the comments above.

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  9. I am having trouble getting all the factual information correct (sigh).

    Seekers Church is just inside the D.C. boundary and the church's address is Washington, D.C.

    Then, although the Metro station about two minutes walk from Seekers is the Takoma station, the name of the city is Takoma Park, Maryland.

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  10. Leroy, I love your "updated Lord's Prayer." Great job! Intellectually it is quite satisfying. Emotionally, though, . . . well . . .

    To pray, "Our Father . . ." is emotionally satisfying for folks, because all those mixed feelings about our biological fathers get projected heavenward.

    (Feuerbach and Freud have been very influential to me at this point. I wrestle with "the Father-Son" in the Gospel of John in terms of my own ambivalent feelings toward my father in my 2001 book _Word and Soul_. http://www.litpress.org/Products/5924/word-and-soul.aspx You used to be able to read the introduction to the book online, but no more. Guess you'll just have to buy it! Take my word for it: It's worth it!)

    "God the Father" loves me in all the ways that my father did and didn't. The "Creator God" to which your prayer is directed. . . Well, I have no human analogy for that. And "Father-Mother God," which some people use, is just confusing!

    I get why some "radical feminists" (You know who you are!) dump Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) as hopelessly patriarchal. (See esp. Mary Daly's _Beyond God the Father_.) I suppose that I stay in the fold in order to raise questions, for which I have no answers.

    We want a personal God who is like us, so we project all these gendered characteristics onto God. As a theologian, I want to "problematize" and "complexify" this language, but I have no real solutions, and I cannot simplify.

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  11. You can read some of the introduction to my book _Word and Soul_ at http://www.amazon.com/Word-Soul-Psychological-Literary-Scripture/dp/0814659241 I have a paragraph about "Father-Son" on p. xxiv.

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  12. Earlier this afternoon I received the following substantial comments by Kate Hanch, former Pastor of Children and Creative Communications at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, who is now pursuing a PhD at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary:

    "Thank you for this discussion--our language does frame how we perceive God. For what it's worth, Moltmann purposefully retains the use of kingdom language in his Jesus Christ for Today. He defines Jesus as the kingdom of God in a person, and vice versa. However, he does mention the limitations of kingdom language. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz prefers kin-dom as an alternative, which is interesting, in her Mujerista theology.

    "As a Christian feminist, I prefer the term 'expansive language' over 'gender neutral' language. This recognizes both the multiplicity of metaphors in the scriptural text and tradition, as well as the affirmation that each person as a whole self is a reflection of the imago trinitatis. See, for example, Joanne Van Wijk-Bos' 'Reimaging God: A Case for Scriptural Diversity': http://www.amazon.com/Reimagining-God-Case-Scriptural-Diversity/dp/0664255698/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423604694&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=joann+van+wijk+bos

    "When I preach or teach, because most hearers will be familiar with only masculine pronouns, I'll refrain from using personal pronouns to speak of the Triune God or the Holy Spirit--I imagine you are in a similar position. I usually retain traditional language for the Lord's Prayer--like Joshua, mostly from tradition. It's also fun to mix things up, such as speaking of the Motherly Jesus, a concept that has roots as early as Irenaeus, through the medieval mystics and beyond. See Caroline Walker Bynum, 'Jesus as Mother,' p. 126, note 54: http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Mother-Spirituality-Medieval-Renaissance/dp/0520052226#reader_0520052226. So, in a way, people have been exploring names for God outside of the patriarchal realm for a long time, even if those explorations have not always been recognized.

    "I appreciate the thoughtfulness in your revised prayer--you retained the concepts and the rhythm, while thinking of inclusivity. Thankfully, language isn't static, and, as followers of Christ, we are called to learn from one another--which includes learning from the multiplicity of metaphors for God (which is discussed in another book, Sallie McFague's 'Models of God.' She speaks of fixed language for God as 'idolatry').

    "Thanks again for your thoughtfulness in this discussion--as a woman, I do feel isolated in settings where God is described solely in the masculine pronouns under the guise of 'tradition.'"

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  13. Thanks for posting your thoughts, Leroy. I didn't read through all the comments, so forgive me if this is redundant. First I agree that neutrality is useful - but mainly as a step toward multiplicity. Stepping away from patriarchal language for God is just a first step. The images in scripture for God are multiple, some personal and some impersonal (light, rock, salvation, etc.). The aim might be to 'bring many names,' (Brian Wren) and not fear that we are losing something by understanding God in a variety of ways that come closer to our actual experience of the sacred.

    One of the additional helpful substitutions for "kingdom" is KINDOM. To consider the new kinship to which Jesus calls disciples is to upset the traditional forms of both family (the usual meaning of kinship) and monarchy, which most often does imply a king with unilateral power. Kindom on the other hand holds the possibility of a new vision of a discipleship of equals and servant-leaders collaborating with a servant God.

    Hope your preaching goes well this month!

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    1. Eileen, your comment got me to thinking about other ways God is configured in the scriptures, particularly as animals. It is interesting to look at the Hebrew Bible and see repeated reference to YHWH as a lion, which was a symbol in the ancient world reserved almost solely for kings (there is a fantastic section about this in the recent book The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer L. Koosed). But the ancient Israelites never use leonine imagery for their kings; that image is reserved for God. I also have been fascinated with Stephen D. Moore's recent work on configurations of Christ as lamb in John's Apocalypse. Revelation depicts the lamb (who, curiously enough, roars like a lion) doing really weird, un-lamb-like things like opening a scroll, which would be really difficult for a lamb, if you think about it. This makes me wonder if our understanding of God and Christ must be expanded to not only transcend gender boundaries-but also our own anthropocentric conceptions of "personhood," as well.

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